One week before a threatened strike deadline by major league baseball players, the two sides negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement have put the relatively minor issues behind them and now will tackle their major points of contention.
"We pretty much cleaned the slate," said Lee MacPhail, chief negotiator for the owners as head of the Players Relations Committee, which also met today. "I'm encouraged in that respect and I think we're ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work on the major issues."
Donald Fehr, acting executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, agreed with MacPhail, but again emphasized that settling the minor issues would not avoid a strike, scheduled for Aug. 6 if an agreement is not reached.
"Subject to working out contract language -- crossing the Ts, and dotting the Is -- I think we've reached an agreement on the overwhelming majority of the less significant issues, and we put those behind us," Fehr said after the 90-minute meeting at the major league offices. "Over the next 12 to 18 hours, we will make sure we have the agreement we think we have, and beginning tomorrow afternoon, we can get back to the remaining issues that divide us."
Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who said Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., that he "would not allow our negotiations to fail," was in New York today but did not attend the meeting.
Ueberroth told ABC's Howard Cosell, "I can't support a strike, but I have no way to stop a strike. I'm going to meet with each separately, to try and avoid a strike. It doesn't help either side and the fans don't want it . . . I've got to be active in this transaction as we get down to the finish. I think they (the negotiators on both sides) are going to do their jobs."
The issues seemingly resolved today include procedures involving contracts, waivers, licensing and spring training. The major issues include the union's desire for one-third ($60 million) of the new $1.1 billion network TV contract to go into the union's pension and benefit fund.
The owners want to reduce that traditional fraction, which never has been part of any written agreement.
Free agency and salary arbitration also are major issues still to be decided. The union wants a slight expansion in eligibility for arbitration; the owners want to adjust the number of years a player must be in the majors from two to three before he can file for arbitration. The owners also want limits on the amount an arbitrator can award.
Both sides said the discussions today were positive.
"The atomosphere has been constructive and workmanlike the last few days on those issues," Fehr said. "We've made progress on those and, hopefully, we will on the rest. But everyone has always understood that if there is going to be a strike, it would always come about over the major issues, either alone or with one another. And those issues have not been addressed in a meaningful fashion. The task is to do that over the next week.
"I really don't want to gauge the chances of success. I have no reason to believe we're any closer than we have been."
Before the afternoon negotiations, MacPhail met for four hours with the four owners on the PRC: Milwaukee's Bud Selig, Baltimore's Edward Bennett Williams, Houston's John McMullen and Los Angeles' Peter O'Malley. MacPhail said there are "no problems, no hangups" with the owners. He said they were "unified" in support of the PRC executive committee and the negotiating group, which was not always the case during the 1981 strike.
MacPhail stopped short of saying the owners would put a new proposal on the table Tuesday on any of the major issues, and specifically, the pension issue.
"I will meet with Donald Fehr today," Ueberroth told ABC. "I'll meet with Lee MacPhail today, and I'll probably meet with each of them each day right on through, and I'll do the best I can to get both parties to get to common ground.